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House committee looks at impeachment for judges

Several lawmakers question whether the Legislature should involve itself in the judges' fates.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 24, 2001


Several lawmakers question whether the Legislature should involve itself in the judges' fates.

TALLAHASSEE -- In an extraordinary move, a Florida House committee on Tuesday mulled whether to begin impeachment proceedings against two Tampa Bay area judges, a process they said could involve secret evidence and moral judgments by state lawmakers.

"We're not on a witch hunt," said committee chairman Rep. Larry Crow, a Palm Harbor Republican. "The evidence shows there is a severe problem with these judges. This committee does have an obligation to investigate."

But several lawmakers questioned whether the cash-strapped Legislature ought to be getting involved at all in the cases of Hillsborough Circuit Judge Robert Bonanno and Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Charles Cope.

"An impeachment process is so hugely distracting. I'm just not sure, given the other challenges we have, that the Legislature should jump on this quickly," said Rep. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat.

The Legislature last used its power to impeach judges in 1978. Tuesday, the House committee began with a general discussion of impeachment procedures, but made no decisions. The committee is scheduled to meet again to continue the impeachment discussion on Tuesday.

Both Cope and Bonanno are being investigated elsewhere, and some lawmakers said those probes should finish before the Legislature steps in.

Cope is being investigated by the Judicial Qualifications Commission and is facing five misdemeanor charges in California after two women alleged that he tried to enter their hotel room while they slept. Cope was attending a judicial conference at the time. Police said he was intoxicated. He has since sought treatment, said his attorney, Lou Kwall.

In the Bonanno case, the JQC last month recommended that the Florida Supreme Court reprimand Bonanno publicly for a "serious lapse in judgment" for entering the office of another judge after hours. A grand jury report this year concluded that Bonanno is "unfit" to be a judge and should be removed. Among other things, it noted that he had an extramarital affair with a court clerk. The judge awaits a final decision from the state Supreme Court.

The idea of wading hip-deep into the Tampa Bay courthouse scandals made Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, wince.

"Drinking. Extramarital affairs. Gee. I don't know that I want to make that decision," Argenziano said.

In an impeachment proceeding, lawmakers would act as a kind of grand jury, Crow said. There would be no formal rules of evidence, and the ultimate decision would rest on "whatever individual members feel would be a proper level of morality" for the two judges.

The House would then have to vote to impeach by a two-thirds majority, and the Senate would then be compelled to begin its own impeachment trial.

The move to open impeachment proceedings came from House Speaker Tom Feeney, who directed the committee to investigate Bonanno and Cope. The committee has to give Feeney a report when the Legislature convenes in January.

Crow said the committee will review secret documents provided by the JQC. The committee will keep one set of the documents in a Capitol office, and lawmakers will have to make individual trips to view them, he said.

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